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Source: John Kelly Knew Of Abuse Claims For Months; Senate Unveils Budget Deal Meets Next Hour; Today: Senate And House Vote On Spending Bill. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 8, 2018 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:00:08] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I have to say this, Sofia, you may only be 9 years old but you are already a hero to all of us in this room and all over the world.

Thank you, Sofia.

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: Heroes like Sofia come from all across our country. And from every different background. But they all share one thing in common. Through their love, their courage, their sacrifice, we glimpse the grace of Almighty God. So today, inspired by our fellow citizens, let us resolve to find the best within ourselves.

Let us pray for that extra measure of strength and that extra measure of devotion. And let us seek to build a more just and peaceful world where every child can grow up without violence, worship without fear, and reach their God-given potential.

As long as we are true to America's founding and the example that all of these great founders have set, we can all be heroes to everybody and they can be heroes to us. As long as we open our eyes to God's grace and open our hearts to God's love, then America will forever be the land of the free, the home of the brave, and the light unto all nations.

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: Thank you for this incredible event. And to our wonderful host and thank you to all of our heroes for serving and protecting and inspiring America each and every day.

God bless you, and God bless America. Thank you very much. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. John Berman here. You've been listening to President Trump speaking at the 66th Annual National Prayer Breakfast. Giving a very solemn, a very faith-filled speech to this crowd. Filled, I should add, with many of his now biggest supporters.

This is a group of people who has rallied behind this thrice-married politician, the evangelical base, key to this president. He spoke about the faith and charity of the American, following the storms and mass shootings. He spoke about the battle against ISIS and he brought up the bravery and faith of a young girl Sofia as she faced surgery.

I'm joined now by Matt Lewis, a CNN political commentator, and Dana Bash as well, our chief political correspondent.

Matt, I was noting that this is a crowd that is now really solidly the president's base and a couple of years ago this would be an unlikely statement to make.

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. Look, this is a thrice-married casino magnate and so -- you know, you would have hardly -- and a guy who said, you know, I don't ask God for forgiveness. Not that long ago. So it is a paradox and -- but it's amazing that evangelicals have really taken to him.

And I do have to say that this is a pretty good speech. And Donald Trump has become quite good at actually speaking to Christians. And so I think this is a good speech. The first half was probably pretty much boilerplate but --

BERMAN: Right.

LEWIS: The Sophie story, I think it's a prime example of how he -- you know, in the same thing with the State of the Union. How Donald Trump can tell these emotional stories, have examples of real people there. I think it really resonates with that audience.

BERMAN: And Dana Bash, who's here with me also, remember one year ago at this same breakfast is when the president chose to make jokes about Arnold Schwarzenegger and "Apprentice" ratings so you can look at an evolution from that to now.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You're right. No question about it. And look, this is as traditional as it gets. Presidents go, as you say -- as you said, they have been going for decades to give an annual speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, which is ecumenical, it is non-partisan. You saw Democrats on that stage, who don't agree politically with a lot of the president's evangelical base. But this is kind of that snapshot that still remains, thank goodness, in Washington where a president of any party can come and speak and everybody kind of rallies around the notion of what he is saying.

BERMAN: All right. Dana, Matt, stand by, because this is happening while there is a swirl of controversy surrounding the White House.

Big questions, why didn't White House Chief of Staff John Kelly get off the couch? A key presidential adviser, Rob Porter, has resigned following accusations of domestic abuse from two former wives.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JENNIE WILLOUGHBY, ROB PORTER'S EX-WIFE: He came and grabbed me by the shoulders here and pulled me out of the shower in a rage. (END VIDEO CLIP)

[09:05:06] BERMAN: That was Porter's second wife Jennifer Willoughby. This is his first wife Colby Holderness with a black eye. And this is what White House Chief of Staff John Kelly first said about these accusations yesterday. "Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor, and I can't say enough good things about him."

Now overnight he amended that some. "I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society. I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter I have come to know."

Now leave aside for a moment the standing by the integrity and honor part, despite the allegations, focus on the shock part. Why was John Kelly shocked? How could he be shocked? Look at the timeline here.

In January of 2017, both ex-wives shared their stories with the FBI. In the fall of 2017 Kelly and top aides became aware of abuse allegations and security clearance issues. In recent weeks Politico reports an ex-girlfriend contacted the White House counsel about this. So John Kelly knew or should have known about these allegations, yet did nothing about it. Did nothing.

And remember, John Kelly is a fierce critic of doing nothing. At least among some people. When young undocumented immigrants did not sign up for DACA protections, Kelly said they were, quote, "too lazy to get off their asses." He said, "They just should have probably gotten off the couch and signed up."

So when Kelly was told as early as November that this key White House aide had abused two former wives, why didn't John Kelly get off the couch? Why didn't he leap off the couch? Why was his response this week to praise Porter and to try to actually convince Porter not to resign? What does this mean now for John Kelly periodically in hot water with the president already?

These are key questions in this White House, a White House where the president promised to hire only the best people.

Abby Philip, standing by at the White House with this developing story -- Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, John. This story continues to be more and more disturbing. We've learned that President Trump was upset about these allegations when he first learned about them this week but the question is why. John Kelly as you just noted has known about them for months according to our sources and yet apparently did nothing. The question is how much exactly did he know about these allegations levied against Rob Porter.

Now Rob Porter is someone who has a title of staff secretary which seems somewhat mundane but it belies a pretty major importance in this White House. He was the keeper of all paper going to President Trump. He also was a right hand to John Kelly, a sort of enforcer of Kelly's new era of discipline. And, you know, Rob Porter is also someone who has a long history of in

Washington. He's a Harvard Law graduate, a Rhodes Scholar, and he worked for three United States senators. Some of whom put out statements this week defending him. But of course his ex-wives have these allegations that he abused them during their marriages and Porter for his part is denying them.

He released a statement yesterday adamantly denying the accusations against him, saying that they outrageous and simply false. "I took the photos given to the media nearly 15 years ago and the reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described."

At the same time we have not heard more from Rob Porter about what exactly of these allegations he denies. We know that there was a protective order taken out against him and again, John, there's questions today about how much the White House knew and was that document something that they were aware of, and if so, why didn't they act and why didn't they tell President Trump sooner about these allegations?

These are all questions that remain unanswered today. We also know John Kelly, despite some of these questions swirling around him, was traveling with President Trump this morning when he went to the National Prayer Breakfast.

BERMAN: He was at the prayer breakfast. That should tell us all something this morning.

Abby Philip, great reporting from the White House. Thanks so much.

Let hear now more from at least one of Rob Porter's ex-wives. She is speaking out. This is Jennifer Willoughby.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLOUGHBY: Rob wasn't finished fighting, I supposed, at that point. He was still angry and so he came and he grabbed me by the shoulders here, and pulled me out of the shower in a rage. And immediately I'm seeing the terror in my face, retracted and apologized and changed composure immediately. But that was -- that was the first time that he had laid hands on me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Jennifer Willoughby in her own words.

Let's get straight now to CNN's MJ Lee.

MJ, you too have spoken to both Willoughby and Holderness. What are they saying?

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: That's right, John. And the allegations from these two women are very troubling to say the least. Let me just walk you through what each of the two women -- each of the two ex-wives told me yesterday over the phone. [09:10:03] The first ex-wife, Colby Holderness, married Porter back in

2003 and she said that there was constant emotional and verbal abuse, and that the physical abuse began almost immediately after their wedding. She told me about an incident during their honeymoon where after a fight or during a fight, I should say, he -- Porter kicked her thigh and that over the years he would repeatedly choke her and do this thing where he would throw her on the bed and then lean his body weight using a limb, apparently in anger, usually when they were having these fights.

And then in 2005 she says that there was an incident in Italy where he punched her in the face. I know that we have been showing these very disturbing photos of Colby Holderness's face. You can see the bruises from that incident back in 2005.

The second ex-wife, Jennifer Willoughby, we heard a little bit from her earlier. She married Porter back in 2009 and she also said that there was deep emotional abuse and that there were some instances where things did get physical. She said that there was an incident in 2010 where Porter punched a glass pane on their front door and the police had to come and that the police actually recommended to her that she take out a protective order against him and so she did so.

There was a fight later in that year in 2010 where at least saw her talking about this incident where they had a fight, she went to take a shower and then he came in to the shower and grabbed her by the shoulders, leaving her feeling incredibly frightened.

Now an additional twist, John, to the stories that we're being told from these ex-wives is that they both told me independently that a woman claiming to be an ex-girlfriend of Rob Porter reached out to them last year and that she basically also described receiving abuse from Porter and she was essentially looking to them for help.

I just want to read quickly a message that this ex-girlfriend wrote to Holderness sometime last year. December of 2016 actually. She wrote, "I work in politics and despite Rob's repeated abuse, some of which I think may be known about he continues to rise and I'm afraid to go against him. I'm sorry to bother you. I wanted to reach out and hear your story if you are willing to share, as well as how you broke out of it with him and mostly how you recovered."

Now CNN, I should note, is not naming this woman. We just know that she works in the federal government but we have not been able to reach her.

BERMAN: All right. MJ Lee, thank you very much.

This story disturbing. Potentially more disturbing the White House seemed to know a whole lot of this for several months and didn't do anything about it.

Joining us now, CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash again, CNN political commentator Matt Lewis and CNN political analyst Julie Hershfield-Davis. Dana, first to you, because you've been working your sources inside

the White House, getting some new reaction right now. And this morning we're told, you know, they were in a state of shock.

BASH: Yes. And that's certainly what I'm hearing from people who have worked with Rob Porter inside of the White House from some who have worked with him on Capitol Hill because he comes across as a Boy Scout. I mean, that's the term that I hear over and over again. Never mind his pedigree of being a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law and being a Mormon, which kind of -- you know, inherently the religion would not make you think that he would act like this.

I have to say, just on a human level before we talk about politics, listening to MJ Lee, I feel like I'm watching an episode of "Big Little Lies." I mean, it is -- it is kind of mind-boggling, which is why you're hearing people inside of the White House who know Rob Porter well say that they are shocked because he has this veneer of, you know, perfection and yet -- again these are allegations, he denies them but still the allegations are so stark and so horrifying.

Having said that, the question of what they knew and when they knew it in the White House, we don't know all of the details. What we do know, John, from sources who are familiar with the process of how it worked, is that the chief of staff was given a head's up about this in the fall. And Rob Porter was not fired. He did not leave.

I was told that there were some discussion about it. But that John Kelly felt that Porter at the time because things were in such flux and so chaotic inside, that he wanted Porter to stay because he had become so invaluable to Kelly in terms of the regular job of staff secretary which means moving around very important paper all day long, interagency, you know, classified information and so forth. But also he began acting almost as a deputy chief of staff, really integral to the Kelly -- Kelly chief of staff --

BERMAN: Yes. He was basically promoted. He became more important in the White House over the last several months, not less important, and Matt Lewis, these last few days when Kelly learned even more presumably by reading it in the press even though he knew a bunch of it already, you know, not only did he not fire Rob Porter, he asked him to stay. And he put out a glowing endorsement of him.

You call this extremely disappointing and political malpractice. Those are two separate issues here, but explain your feelings on this.

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I mean, even after John Kelly saw this photo of this poor woman and by the way, I think these are two highly credible women, who are making very credible charges in this instance.

Even after John Kelly saw that photo of his -- of Porter's ex-wife, he still -- in a statement goes on to talk about how -- what a great -- other than the fact that he beats his wife, allegedly, he's a great guy. It is so tone deaf.

It is political malpractice and I have to say I'm very disappointed. There was a hope when John Kelly came in that he would do two things. Number one, he would bring some discipline and logistical order to the White House. He's done an OK job at that. It is a tough gig, but I think he's done OK.

The other thing that frankly I think we hoped, though, is that he would provide some adult leadership and some moral guidance to a president, who frankly is deficient in that area and I think that John Kelly has clearly failed at that part of the job.

BERMAN: Well, not only has he not fixed some of these problems, he's been at the center, Julie, of a lot of these problems, you know, since the summer whether it be the issue with the parents and the family, you know, of the soldier killed overseas or calling immigrants lazy or not, to this, he is really at the center now of many of these controversies, not controlling them.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that is right. I mean, for a long time what we have heard from people inside the White House and people close to the White House is that Kelly is really -- his main job as he sees it is to manage the president and to manage the processes and inputs that comes to the president.

But as the chief of staff, your mandate is much broader than that, really. You are setting a tone for the staff and making public statements and certainly going to Capitol Hill as John Kelly did this week to talk to lawmakers of what the White House position is and what you are willing to accept and not accept.

And you know, he's used this rhetoric this week about DACA recipients and other undocumented people, who could potentially qualify for DACA calling them lazy and saying they won't get off the couch.

That clearly has racial undertones that were very troubling to a lot of people and I think as Matt said, people expected that Kelly was going to set this tone of moderation and normalcy in a White House that really lacks that.

And if anything, he has done just the opposite and I think actually the longer he is in the position, the more he appears to have the same sort of tendencies as President Trump. And on this case, with Rob Porter, it was very clear yesterday that he simply does not take these allegations seriously.

He had told them about in the fall and it was an FBI situation where, you know, they had been made aware of these things. It wasn't some casual, there are rumors going around. He didn't do anything about it.

Rob Porter continues to take on even more power in the White House and even as recently as yesterday afternoon he was still putting out a statement through the press secretary saying he had full confidence in Rob's abilities and his performance.

Clearly, missing the point. It's almost as if until the reaction started to take hold from these photographs and interviews that the ex-wives did, he just didn't seem to think that it was an issue at all.

BERMAN: What is John Kelly willing to accept for a long time, apparently, he was willing to accept someone accused of domestic abuse inside the White House. We'll have much more on this ahead because there are key questions now about the security clearance, you know, how come the White House didn't act more when Porter didn't get the clearance and what was the implications there?

And there are other big questions this morning on Capitol Hill. This giant budget deal, the likes of which we haven't seen in a long, long time, is this thing going to pass? The clock is ticking and there are members of both parties against it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:22:59]

BERMAN: All right. We are just a short time perhaps from a near Washington miracle. The Senate will vote on a two-year bipartisan spending bill, both the length and the bipartisan part like a political unicorn these days. Things are near mythology.

But this bipartisan bill also has bipartisan opposition and there are questions about whether it will pass. Moments ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he thinks he has the votes. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R-WI), HOUSE SPEAKER (via telephone): You bet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you have the votes in the House of Representatives to pass what looks like a done deal in the Senate?

RYAN: I think we will. I feel good. Part of it depends on the Democrats. This is a bipartisan bill and it's going to need bipartisan support. We are going to deliver our share of support. I feel very good about Republicans.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: All right. That was an I think we will and not a yes actually. CNN's Suzanne Malveaux on Capitol Hill with where things stand this morning -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, still sounding rather confident about this, needing that 218 votes to get it over the line on the House side. They do need Democrats to make that happen.

And we are -- we have actually heard from Mark Meadows this morning on CNN of the Freedom Caucus, those conservatives who said when they saw the price tag of this budget deal, it was eye-popping. That caucus officially saying, no, they are not going for it.

So, it will be very interesting to see the numbers that Paul Ryan is actually able to come around and whether or not his caucus is even more divided. Now we are also keeping our eye on a 9:15 press conference with Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic retreat on the House side.

As you know, yesterday, they had an eight-hour marathon on the House floor insisting that any budget deal be connected to a DACA deal, a deal for the DREAMers. We have seen the Hispanic caucus, congressional Hispanic caucus align with her. They now officially saying they are not on board.

It will be very interesting to see the tone in which she delivers her remarks this morning. Her negotiating team behind the scenes are really a big part of this deal, and so she is not specifically asked for her caucus to go her way.

She said this is the way she's going. We're going to take a look and see how does that playout later today. The Senate gavels to order at 10:30.

[09:25:09] And they will go through procedural votes before getting to this budget vote later in the afternoon. It is not clear necessarily when that will happen, but we do expect in the afternoon, look out for 11:30, that is when we see Paul Ryan back again at a press conference speaking about this.

We'll look at his tone and we'll also be looking at is there any wiggle room because Nancy Pelosi has been asking Ryan, will you put forth a promise, a commitment for immigration reform on the House side like you have McConnell's promise on the Senate side.

He has so far said no. He is waiting for something that Trump will sign onto, the president, of course, and so, we'll see does he tone change in any way to accommodate Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats, they need to get it over the hump.

And finally, this deadline could slip a little bit if they have support on the Senate side, which is expected -- the House side, they may look at a 24-hour continuing resolution, very short-term just to figure out the paperwork and make this happen so that the House will vote on it potentially tomorrow -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Suzanne Malveaux on Capitol Hill. My panel back with me for some quick hits. Dana Bash, first to you, liberal Democrats hate it. Conservatives Republicans hate it.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It must be a compromise.

BERMAN: It must be a compromise. Do you think it will get through?

BASH: It seems that way. You know, Paul Ryan is going to need the Democrats. He talked about it has to be done the old-fashioned way which is with Democrats and Republicans supporting it. And guess what? This is the way Washington is supposed to run, folks. It is.

BERMAN: It is interesting. You know, the president came out last night after the day before saying he was all in favor of a shutdown. The president supports this deal which he really has no part in frankly, interesting.

DAVIS: Well, right. I mean, he was completely cut out of these negotiations which he was as well last year when Republicans and Democrats got together to cut a deal to keep the government running last spring.

And afterward he was quite upset about it. That's when he started tweeting, about, well, perhaps we need a good shutdown and we heard him repeat some of that earlier this week, but certainly now that they have this deal, it seems that the president is going to stick behind it.

Like Dana said, this is the way things always used to work. Incidentally, it is everything that Donald trump campaigned against and what a lot of conservative Republicans are very uncomfortable with.

But when you have a lot of -- tens of 20s of billions of federal dollars to spread around you could get consensus pretty readily in the House and Senate.

BERMAN: I'm not sure they do have tens and billions dollars to spread around. This is exploding the debt, and Matt Lewis, I'm old enough to remember when Republicans like you really didn't like deficit spending.

LEWIS: Right. Well, first, let's give credit to the Freedom Caucus then for being consistent. So, there are fiscal conservatives who will not vote for this. But, yes, look it is hypocrisy certainly on the part of the Republican leadership. There is no way to deny that.

Now this thing does some good things. You know, disaster relief is good. Medical centers and things like that, but yes, there is no doubt there is hypocrisy here. The debt is exploding.

And there is a chance also if you couple this with the tax cuts, that we'll overstimulate the economy. We saw what happened in the stock market earlier this week. I mean, there could be actually negative ramifications in the short-term. Never mind the long-term of doing something like this.

BERMAN: All right. Guys, we have about a minute or so from the opening bell. Dana, Matt, Julie, thank you so much for being with me.

Top aide, Rob Porter, out at the White House as soon as today. But if he could not get permanent security clearance because of abuse allegations, should he had been out a lot sooner?

As I said, we are just moments away from the opening bell and it looks like investors may be able to take a breath. Dow futures up over 100 points. Remains to be seen what investors think of the budget deal.

I will note that yesterday the market was up big before it ended up a little bit down. So, who knows where this is all headed.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)